Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham is an excellent novel about novel writing and about how life interacts with novel writing and how humans interact with each other. The narrator, Willie Ashenden, is a novelist with strong, sometimes hilarious opinions about his colleagues. In the opening chapter, he describes the successful novelist Alroy Kear in seemingly kind terms, but the kindness has a bite to it:
He was so pleasant that his fellow writers, his rivals and contemporaries, forgave him even the fact that he was a gentleman. He was generous in his praise of their fledgling works, and when they sent him manuscripts to criticize could never find a thing amiss. They thought him not only a good sort, but a sound judge.
This passage gave me flashbacks to The Way We Live Now. There’s a lot about the tone Maugham uses here that reminds me of Trollope’s description of Lady Carbury’s efforts to get good reviews of her substandard book.
Kear is contacting Ashenden because he is working on a biography of the great, recently deceased novelist Edward Driffield, and he’s hoping Ashenden will share some of his recollections of the time he spent with Driffield when he was young. Much of Cakes and Ale is made up of Ashenden’s memories of Driffield and his free-spirited first wife, Rosie. Rosie, a former barmaid, did what she pleased and loved freely, and her relationships with Driffield and with Ashenden form the heart of this story.
The scandals surrounding Driffield’s marriage to Rosie cover the usual ground of social class, sex, and the social expectations of women. Rosie lives as she pleases without regard for the usual conventions. It’s not clear until the novel ends how much Driffield knows or cares about Rosie’s activities. And it’s not clear how her actions influence his work; the best of his novels were said to be written when he was married to Rosie. Why?
This is the second Maugham novel I’ve read (the other being Of Human Bondage), and I think it’s safe to say that I’m now a confirmed fan. His writing is excellent, and his insights are thoughtful, and his wit is pleasing. I’ll definitely be reading more of his work in the future.